The Midrash teaches: “A philosopher asks Rabbi Hoshaya, ‘If circumcision is so precious, why was Adam not born circumcised?’ Rabbi Hoshaya responds, ‘Whatever was created in the first six days of creation requires further preparation, e.g. mustard needs sweetening…wheat needs grinding, and so too man needs to be finished.’” (Genesis Rabbah 11:6) We are partners in creation.
We read in this week’s portion that the Israelites completed the building of the Tabernacle. “On the day that Moses finished setting up the Tabernacle, he anointed and consecrated it and all its furnishings, as well as the altar and its utensils.” (Numbers 7) As in the creation story, the Hebrew suggests that the work continues, that it remains, like the world at large, a work in progress. We still continue to finish the Tabernacle, the mishkan.
For the ancient Israelites this truth was apparent. They understood that despite Moses’ dedication ceremony, the Tabernacle was temporary and impermanent. The mishkan was the portable Tabernacle that they carried with them throughout their wanderings in the wilderness. The Israelites would pack up the mishkan and its furnishings and move from one destination to the next. For our ancestors the Tabernacle was the symbol of God’s presence in their midst. It gave them the confidence that God accompanied them throughout their journeys.
They continued to move, stage by stage. And they continued to finish the building, and perfect creation, while believing that God remained in their midst. One of the many lessons of the Torah is that the journey is what is defining not the destination. Otherwise the Torah would not have five books, but six and conclude with the Book of Joshua in which we conquer the land of Israel and establish there our homeland. Instead the Torah concludes in what is today modern day Jordan, looking at the dream off in the distance. And then we return to reading the creation story.
The purpose is the journey. The sanctuaries and buildings we build are but tools.
Too often these buildings and their furnishings become identified with the synagogue rather than the people they serve. This week we learn that community is never completed. We are reminded that we are forever wandering.
While I recognize that the journey can sometimes be frustrating, (“Rabbi, when are we going to have a building of our own?”) we too continue to journey and are forever completing. And while a building is now within reach, and even closer at hand, there is a certain power to holding dreams off in the distance. There is a strength and resolve that is gained, imagination and vision that is clarified, when we continue to reach for something.
Part of what the Torah teaches is that there is a spirit of the wilderness, of wandering that sustains the Jewish people. It is a feeling that we are creating something new and different. It is a passion that this journey has meaning and that the dream, however distant it might sometimes appear, is worth the challenges of the midbar, the wilderness. It is these aspirations that continue to give life to our people. And it is this same spirit that has sustained our congregation for nearly twenty years.
Some people look at our congregation and say, “When are you guys ever going to have a building?” But that is not what I see. I look at our congregation and say, “We are better without a building than most synagogues are with a building.” I believe it is because we continue to reach for dreams, that we, more than most of our contemporaries, have imbibed this spirit of wandering that is our biblical legacy.
Soon we will have a building. “Halleluyah! Praise God in God’s sanctuary.” (Psalm 150) We must then recall that this moment is not the realization of a dream, but the beginning of another journey and a new task of completing the work. We must then strive even harder to hold fast to our aspirations, to cling to this spirit of wandering. The building will not sustain us. Such sustenance can only come from our hearts.
The process continues of perfecting our world, of bettering our community, of striving to bring God’s presence to our world. The building will most certainly aid us in these goals, but it is not the dream. Those must be held off in the distance.
The wandering continues. Even the building continues. The world requires more work.